The situation for prisoners has deteriorated since 2017, while the Nicosia central prisons are “bursting at the seams”, an anti-torture report published on Friday revealed.

Concerns were raised in the Council of Europe’s committee findings over violence against prisoners after allegations of “slaps, punches to the head, and in one case blows with a metal bar, which resulted in a fractured arm” during custody.

Conditions forced up to four inmates to be crammed into five-square-metre cells, with people sleeping under tables and urinating in plastic bottles when toilet access was not available at night.

The report highlighted that prisoners are scared for their safety, even though the vast majority of prisoners did not complain of ill-treatment by staff.

“There were a number of allegations from different blocks of staff slapping prisoners as an informal punishment for being late back to their cells, among other issues,” the report detailed.

“Wooden sticks were carried by staff which were allegedly used to informally herd and intimidate prisoners.”

The report warned of racist behaviour against prisoners as well as “several cases of serious inter-prisoner violence, including in the most extreme form, the murder of a prisoner in Block 1A in October 2022.”

In its responses, Cyprus said the prison department is “clearly against every type of racism, and discriminative behaviour or treatment.”

The findings by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment also highlighted the prison was “bursting at its seams, with some accommodation blocks operating at more than 300 per cent of their design capacity.”

“Large numbers of prisoners were sleeping on mattresses on the floor under the bunk beds, under the tables and on every available space in the cells.”

The situation was exacerbated by permitting smoking in communal spaces and rooms resulting in many prisoners being exposed to passive smoking and its associated health risks, it said.

“There was also a lack of ready access to toilets at night, linked to the lack of staff available to let prisoners out of their cells to use the block’s toilets, which resulted in prisoners urinating in bottles, in these hot, packed cells.”

Cyprus’ response specified that prisoners in Block 4A have direct access to the toilet. In all other blocks mentioned, officers make “every attempt possible” to respond promptly to the bells for the toilet, when required.

It added that it recognised overpopulation concerns, and expects the problem to be rectified once the prison infrastructure is expanded.

The committee urged prison management to review its violence prevention strategy, after the delegation observed that “certain common areas, which were reportedly the places where violent incidents occurred, were not covered by CCTV cameras.”

This was a fact well-known by prisoners, the report highlighted.

Additionally, it warned that the lack of front-line prison staff created a breeding ground for the development of informal prisoner hierarchies to maintain control and enforce discipline on the blocks.

“Prisoner leaders ran some of the blocks, and allegedly meted out punishments, including ordering group beatings of prisoners. The incidents were not always reported and appeared neither to be properly recorded nor investigated by staff and management.”

Detailing an example of violence, it underlined a case of ‘Prisoner B’, a foreign national who on July 21, 2022, was beaten with a cell’s large metallic padlock by four other prisoners in his cell, apparently on the orders of another prisoner.

Prisoner B had to be hospitalised with broken teeth and a fractured jaw. No investigation into this incident was evident, despite it being recorded in the prisoner’s healthcare records and repeated complaints having been made to the staff of the block.

The findings were based on a visit to Cyprus between May 9 and 17, 2023. The report also detailed concerns over degrading treatment of migrants, contrary to international human rights law.